Coppola's Megalopolis leaves Cannes scratching its head
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Coppola's Megalopolis leaves Cannes scratching its head

Baroque, maddening, futuristic, the new epic by the American master draws on the fall of the Roman Empire to tell a fable about today's United States

Coppola's Megalopolis leaves Cannes scratching its head
Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in Megalopolis. Kong Rithdee

Every year the Cannes Film Festival has its hottest gig -- a film so breathlessly anticipated and a justification of the festival's raison d'être. This year, that honour belongs to Megalopolis. Or, to be completely faithful according to the plaque flashed up on the screen, Francis Ford Coppola's Megalopolis: A Fable.

Reportedly 40 years in gestation, with Coppola selling his Californian wine estate to finance the US$120 million (4.4 billion baht) undertaking, and with so many rumours preceding its Cannes premiere, Megalopolis defies any simple description, and there could be nowhere else in the world for the filmmaker to have a red-carpet debut of this movie other than the festival that 45 years ago awarded its top prize to Apocalypse Now, an enduring classic that similarly flirted controversially close to self-combustion during its long and gruelling shoot.

The narrative is enticing: a daring visionary who returns, perhaps for the last time, to his Delphi with another shot at visionary cinema -- though the resulting vindication is yet to be decided.

Megalopolis is everything from sci-fi epic to futurist daydream, from New-Agey soap opera to a plea for universal humanity. It's cosmic and baroque, maddening and humanist, philosophical and political. It's bloated, confounding, chaotic, alternately cranky and ponderous, didactic and prophetic. It solemnly quotes Ovid, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Marcus Aurelius etc.

At one point during the Cannes screening, a man walked out in front of the screen -- yes, a real, live person -- and spoke a line to the character, to which he got a lengthy response from Adam Driver from the other side of reality. Coppola is gunning for his cinematic gesamtkunstwerk, to the alarm, gasp and frustration of the audience.

The overarching metaphor is the fall of the Roman Empire transposed to New York City (or New Roman in the film). Coppola disregards any need for subtlety. Adam Driver plays a mad genius architect called Caesar Catalina who dreams of building a utopian city called Megalopolis with a space-age material he has concocted called Megalon.

The idealistic Caesar's arch-opponent is the realistic, people-oriented mayor of New Roman named Cicero (Gianfranco Esposito), whose daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel) soon shifts her allegiance to Caesar. Shia LeBeouf is Clodio, a clown-like manipulator bent on derailing Caesar. There are also Dustin Hoffman playing a Roman Senator-like political string-puller, and Laurence Fishburne as a grinning chauffeur and the brooding narrator of the story.

To disregard subtlety, Megalopolis is utterly bonkers, only it seems like Coppola is aware of it and has no desire to rein himself in. The underlying plot about Caesar's ruthless, grandiose scheme and Mayor Cicero's push to stop him is diverted by long sequences of gladiatorial festivity, psychedelic hallucination, a Soviet space station crash, a presentation-style lecture on the future of the world, and so on and so forth.

No two scenes are alike in terms of execution or temperament, and each of the actors injects their own interpretation into the scenes. Nothing seems to gel -- and Coppola couldn't care less. He even revels in the anything-goes hodgepodge as part of his delirious design.

As of now, Megalopolis still has no distributor (though IMAX in the US has committed to a limited release). Critics at Cannes either play along with the film's wild ride (Cannes can make people excitable) or resort to guarded criticism out of respect for the master, like the article you're reading now. Chances of the film being released internationally remain uncertain; Coppola has to clear the first hurdle by finding someone who'll wide-release the film in the US.

As uneven and irritating as the film can be, Megalopolis is not a fiasco, and it won't diminish Coppola's reputation as one of the greatest American filmmakers. Even if no one wants to remember Megalopolis, no one could ever forget The Godfather, Apocalypse Now or The Conversation. His latest film is the work of an old man who's still enviably courageous, and who seems to believe in the moral obligation of a filmmaker to tell a story about America's high and low points, about its dark and glorious sides. It will certainly leave you scratching your head, but let's hope Megalopolis will soon be seen by all.

Kong Rithdee reports from Cannes for the Bangkok Post.

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